“Silvestrov’s music is not only instantly recognizable; it is complex and full of intensity, uncompromising and yet, like Pärt and Kancheli, utterly direct in communicating with audiences.” — Gramophone
Since 2001, ECM has championed the art of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov with recordings of his orchestral, chamber and vocal works – creations that stand as some of the most arresting and moving in contemporary music. This continues in Silvestrov’s 75th birthday year with Sacred Songs, the seventh release ECM has devoted wholly to the composer’s music; it collects sets of songs composed from 2006 to 2008: Songs for Vespers, Psalms and Prayers, Two Psalms of David, Two Spiritual Refrains, Two Spiritual Songs and Three Spiritual Songs. These pieces reflect Silvestrov’s late-blooming interest in composing for voices, which has led to the ECM albums Requiem for Larissa (released in 2004) and Sacred Works (2010). Like Sacred Works, the new Sacred Songs features the idiomatically attuned, even otherworldly performances of Ukraine’s Kiev Chamber Choir under the direction of co-founder Mykola Hobdych, with the recordings made in the resounding air of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, an ancient building recently reconstructed, whose acoustic is almost a joint performer with the choir.
In his liner notes, Paul Griffiths sets the tone:
Sacred songs – songs enunciating words from a church service, as all these do – place themselves in a fold in time, where a specific moment touches the ageless. The words come without date or authorship; they have been spoken and sung for so long that their origins have been effaced. They just are. They are as they always have been and as they always will be: Much of the Orthodox liturgy has survived in continuous use from long before the arrival of Christianity in Kiev more than a millennium ago, which makes this body of texts near timeless for such temporary beings as we are. How can music, music composed in the 21st century, not put a limit to that long resonance? Perhaps by sounding, new as it is, already like a memory.
Silvestrov’s sacred vocal music often evokes the pealing or clangour of bells, which echo through the centuries of Orthodox tradition he draws upon. Griffiths writes: “Bells in this culture are voices, sounded by their ‘tongues’, as clappers are still called in modern Ukrainian and Russian, laying the ground for music that has voices as bells. Through transparent screens of folk song and popular tune, even from back before the Word was heard in Kiev, we are hearing a deeply ancient thrum.”
The composer turned to choral composition relatively late in his career, after spending decades concentrating on piano and chamber music, as well as symphonic works. Silvestrov said: “Being an individualist, choirs were never my initial interest. The piano – there lies my fate.” In 1977, shortly after completing his Silent Songs (ECM 1898/99), he wrote an a cappella cantata based on verses by Taras Schewtschenko, but it took almost 20 years for the piece to receive its premiere. He eventually composed the large-scale Requiem for Larissa (ECM 1778), a work that Silvestrov has said was a way for mourning his wife’s early demise. It was Mykola Hobdych’s persistent encouragement that motivated Silvestrov to immerse himself more deeply in the choral world and to study ages-old Russian litanies.